Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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I no longer blog on this site. You can now find me, my general blogs, and the work I am doing researching my forthcoming book on imagination, on my new blog.

16 Jun 2006

Is Our Collective Oil Dependence an Addiction? Further Reflections on the Matter …

addicts2The recent post exploring whether or not our relationship to oil can be seen in terms of a dependency certainly got you going, and yielded some fascinating comments. Some other discussion boards on the net picked up the article and some people could barely restrain their fury at the notion that we might be addicted to oil. The feedback on **Transition Culture** was very interesting, a good balance of for and against. I wanted to make a few observations on some of the comments and respond to some of the points they raised.

A number of people raised the point that we are no more addicted to oil than we are to other life essentials. Mike Bendzela thought the comparison to addiction was *”overwrought and inadequate”*, and that *”we are addicted to oil in the same way that we are ‘addicted’ to oxygen”*. This is an interesting point, at what stage does our relationship with a or a behaviour become unhealthy? We can wash our hands a few times a day, or we be be obsessive about handwashing. We can eat 3 meals a day or we can have the unhealthy relationship to food that means we have to make ourselves vomit after every meal. I imagine it could be possible to have an unhealthy dependent relationship with oxygen too, if we were to become fixated on the sense of elation caused by breathing in pure oxygen and had to have lots of canisters of it around the house.

I contacted Mary-Jayne Rust, a psychotherapist in London who does a lot of work in the addictions, eating disorder field. She wrote;
>”we are dependent on everything we eat, breathe and co-exist with, to stay alive. But in our urbanized and more culturally complex lives, it is often hard to tell the difference between essential dependencies and more recently created dependencies … we have existed for thousands of years without oil, so it is not an essential dependency. Yet if we were to remove oil tomorrow without changing the structure of our society, we would experience total breakdown

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


Mike Bendzela
17 Jun 10:53am

Why is the oil crash going to be such a bad thing?

Because it’s apparent it’s so big that we don’t even know how to talk about it.

We scramble around in our lexicon for terms like “addiction” and think we understand how to “break” ourselves of this form of energy dependence. It’s your business, of course, if you want to continue to delude yourselves this way.

The downslope beyond the oil peak is going to make breaking a crack habit look quaint.

My neighbor, 98, lives alone, in Maine, with an oil furnace. Please inform her that she’s “addicted” to oil.

My mother has two plastic hips that allow her to walk. Please inform her that she’s “addicted” to oil.

6.5 billion people on this planet are kept alive through oil-based agricultural practices. Sorry, all “addicted.”

Each and every aspect of our “cultural, spiritual and artistic” lives is driven by oil. It’s as if you replaced a human being’s body parts and organs with functioning mechanical parts: is that person now “addicted” to those replacements?

“Addiction” is the term prefered by the late 20th, early 21st century recovery cult system that arose with the petroleum age, and which will be, shall we say, supplanted by something else in the wake of oil.

By the way, Energy Bulletin posted some links to supposed “12-step programs” that will “break” us of the oil “habit.” Once such list is:

1. Buy used products whenever possible
2. Don’t buy things you don’t need
3. Share everything – especially energy consuming appliances
4. Walk or Bike for transportation
5. Buy a used car instead of a new one
6. Move your job closer, or move closer to your job
7. Grow food
8. Plant trees and shrubs, preferably food-producing
9. Shop at a local farmers market
10. Eat less meat and more raw foods
11. Retrofit homes for energy and water efficiency
12. Educate yourself and your community on the impact of our choices

I notice that these are not in any way related to the 12-step recovery system in the least but are instead very practical measures people can take to help ameliorate the effects of oil shortage. So why stop at 12?

13. Repudiate modern cultural activities such as movies, restaurants and sporting events.

14. Learn to live with less money so you can stay home.

15. Raise draft animals and learn to work them.

I think the culture is “addicted” to recovery cliches. We can do without them a hell of a lot more than we can do without oil.

John Weber
17 Jun 11:43am

That humans can live without oil is history. That we have become dependent upon oil for the basics of food and heat is manifest. That we have become dependent upon oil for fun, games and meaning makes it an addiction.
With all habits, good and bad, they do not change until they cause the user to hit a brick wall. Usually not once. The first times few crashes, we become disillusioned with the immediate situation but not the pattern. This process can go on forever with no resolution or new pattern. Usually with destructive patterns the hitting of the wall has to be life threatening either figuratively or unfortunately usually literally.
And to open Pandora’s box, these dependencies are often a spiritual problem. We become trapped in false senses of belonging, connection and meaning. This unfortunately will be misused and abused by some well meaning but also many deluded who profit by knowing the “path”.
This will be interesting times indeed.

Mike, again.
17 Jun 2:09pm

By the way, I hope you don’t take my raging personally.

I’m just sickened by what I see happening, and we’re all woefully unprepared for the outcome.

Mark Moody
17 Jun 9:50pm

It’s possible to overcome addictions very quickly if you fully embrace the new reality. I think we are addicted to oil and collectively have no intention of reducing our energy consumption except to the extent required by economic force. People like us are very much in the minority. In my experience addicts lash out when deprived unless the withdrawal is self imposed. The reaction to Peak Oil induced shortages is going to be very unpleasant indeed. Not least because of the grip of the banks on most people’s lives. The neo-con agenda (Bilderbergers etc) is total control and manipulation of the very core of people’s lives as I’m sure you know. When they are confronted by the pincer (debt/oil)where will they leap? I want us to be able to move like Cuba but I suspect the deep integration of debt is going to make that impossible. Crucial is getting the word out and getting people involved in the redesign. Then if it becomes a widespread meme – not just Peak oil but the concept of being involved in the transition plan – we have a chance.

Albert Bates
20 Jun 12:56pm

I think the use of “addiction” rather than dependency, is more apt. In my forthcoming book, The Post Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook: Recipes for Changing Times (New Society, September 2006), I describe it this way:

Like all addictions, our oil habit follows an easily charted pattern:
• We develop a tolerance for the craved object (needing increased amounts to achieve the same effect).
• We experience withdrawal symptoms.
• We take the craved object in larger amounts than was intended or over a longer period of time than was intended.
• We have a persistent desire to decrease the amount of the craved object we consume, but are unable to consume less.
• We spend a great deal of time and money in an attempt to acquire the craved object; and
• We continue to use the craved object, even though we know it is causing recurring physical, social, or psychological problems.

Most psychologists, when presented with a patient showing these symptoms, would design a structured recovery program to bolster the patient’s resolve and motivation to return to normal life without the addiction and would begin a schedule of treatment activities in a favorable setting.

Addiction treatment assumes a patient is rational and able to think and talk about problems. This is where the metaphor begins to unravel. Governments have different psychological makeups than individuals. Rationality is not a word that is easily applied.

Governments are the product of their constituencies’ collective desires. It matters little whether they are democracies, socialist states, oligarchies, military dictatorships, or something else entirely. Each answers to some core constituency that ultimately calls the shots.

Looking around the world, we see that the core constituencies of all the industrial countries, regardless of the form of their governments, are consumers. To consumers, the function of government is to provide the conditions for ever-improving levels of human comfort and material wealth. Consumers are infinitely voracious.

For reasons that petroleum economist Marion King Hubbert foresaw in the mid-1940s, any expectation of constant expansion in consumables is a delusion. Consumers are doomed to have their dreams dashed by the very nature of nature. Governments are therefore in the impossible position of having to pursue goals for their constituents that cannot be achieved.

(end excerpt)

My book goes on to talk about treatment for the addiction and my prescriptions share the usual lists supplied by Mike, but I feel there are deeper issues that also have to be reached and The Great Change offers a chance to perform the hard restart required. Among these issues are the money system, human fecundity, the Protestant ethic, and an essential disconnect between our intellects and the longer cycles of the natural world. For more on all that y’all will just have to await the book.

Chris Johnstone
21 Jun 8:25am

Looking at recent postings, I can see how the term addiction evokes strong reactions. What I’m most interested in is how applying the concepts of addiction and dependence to our society’s oil use might be useful. As an addictions specialist, my work revolves around exploring why and how people continue to use substances in ways that cause them harm, how they feel about this, and how they might change if they wanted to. The addictions field has decades of experience of working with people who’ve got stuck in patterns of harmful substance use, but find this difficult to change. Isn’t this what’s happening with our oil use?

One of the insights that most strongly translates to environmental issues is that there’s a big gap between becoming aware of an issue and then taking action to tackle it. Many people know that smoking is harmful but continue to smoke. Just giving information about the harmful effects of tobacco isn’t enough, by itself, to bring about change. We also need to explore what’s in the way of change, and it is here that an understanding of how people become hooked is useful. In a similar way, more and more people are becoming aware of the problems of high fossil fuel use, in terms of climate change at least, but increasingly also in relation to peak oil. But being aware of the problem isn’t, by itself, enough to inspire the changes needed. So what can the addictions field offer here?

People tend to get stuck on habits when there is ambivalence to change. Part of them might feel concerned, but another part finds the habit attractive, sometimes so much so that they don’t want to see the downside. In the addictions field, the approach of motivational interviewing has developed as a way of working with mixed feelings about change. It has been shown to be an effective way of helping people become clearer about what they really want, thereby tapping into their deeper motivations for change. Our society does appear to be blocked in its response to climate change, and a big part of this is related to the strong mixed feelings about the changes required. How can we begin to work with that resistance to change? How can we understand it? The addictions treatment field has much to offer here, and I’m interested in how we can begin to use this in tackling issues like Peak Oil.

And on the issue of ‘is groupwork helpful?’, I did an outcome study of workshops I’d run on finding our power to address global issues. At one year follow up, over 90% of respondents reported a strengthening of their belief that they could make a difference in the world.

Chris Johnstone, author of Find Your Power.